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Time to Think About Buying Baby Chicks

26 January 2012

US - Short, cold winter days can be difficult to get through, but planning now to start or grow a small poultry flock this spring may just help would-be growers focus on warmer days ahead, according to Kansas State University animal scientist Scott Beyer.

"One of the best times of the year for a grow-your-own kind of person like me is those first weeks after Christmas when the seed and baby chick catalogs start to arrive in the mail," said Mr Beyer, who is a poultry specialist with K-State Research and Extension. "In the deepest part of winter, it's time to plan the garden as well as what needs to be done with your small poultry flock."

Mr Beyer said that more people over the past few years have become interested in locally-produced vegetables and meats, so interest in keeping a few hens to sell at farmers? markets and local restaurants has increased. Since the economy tightened in 2007, the appeal of keeping small flocks has also increased.

"As an extension poultry specialist, it's been fun having lots of new poultry-keeping enthusiasts join the hobby," he said.

"Mail order chick hatcheries have consolidated over the last decade, but there are still a good number that have catalogs with all kinds of poultry breeds. Or, you can wait until you see a 'chick days' sign at your local agricultural supply or feed store, which is a sure sign of spring," he added.

Some catalogs contain more than 100 different breeds and variations and it might become confusing as to which are best. Mr Beyer provided tips for those planning to purchase chicks this spring:

  • Consider the purpose of your flock. Do you want a few eggs? Will you enter them in the local or state fair? Do you want chicken for soup? The answers to these questions will help you choose the birds you need.

  • If showing a pen of birds at the local fair is your goal, then any breed that most interests you is the one you should choose. For beginners, Beyer recommend starting with solid color breeds without tufts, topknots or feathers on their legs, since they are easier to keep and use for selective breeding. There are fewer defects that occur in the standard breeds. For keen competitors, the best chicks come from known breeders who focus on just a few breeds.

  • For those who just want to keep a few birds around for eggs, consider any of the Mediterranean breeds, such as Leghorns or Monorcas. Most are good egg producers and eat less feed since they are small in body size. They are also known for being active and a bit nosier than other breeds. Many hatcheries also offer some type of hybrid cross for egg production and these are often the best breeds for lots of eggs on less feed. Be aware though, that crosses are not able to be entered in pure breed competitions.

  • Dual purpose breeds like Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks will lay eggs for a period of time and are heavy muscled enough to become soup. However, they are not as feed efficient as the Mediterranean breeds and feed costs are more of a concern with today's higher grain prices.

  • Be careful when considering egg production claims in catalogs. Some breeders focus on how well the bird looks for a judge and not on how many eggs they produce.

"I once owned some of the most beautiful Rhode Island Red flocks I've ever seen, but rarely did any of the birds produce more than a dozen eggs a year," Mr Beyer said.

If you want to fill the freezer with meat, choose only a Cornish Breed or a Cornish Cross. Sometimes people call these Cornish Rocks since these were the pure breeds of chickens that were used to develop the chicken you get at a fast food restaurant. These birds often grow in just six to eight weeks and require less than two pounds of feed for every pound of growth.

Heritage breed birds have also become popular. This is really nothing more than the usual breed of chicken, however, the term ?heritage? usually means that the birds are more of a utility breed produced by responsible breeders, such as a line of Rhode Island Reds that not only meets the breed specifications, but still lays a lot of good quality eggs while making a nice stewing bird. Sadly, there are fewer lines of the breeds left today as most pure breeds have become show lines. Heritage breeds grow more slowly and are prized by home cooks and chefs because they taste great in their special dishes.

"Most hatcheries provide a few additional services," Mr Beyer said. "First is vaccination. Most offer vaccination against Marek?s Disease for only a few pennies per chick. This vaccination can only be given when the chick is a day old so it's a good idea to ask for it."

"Hatcheries also offer to sell mixed sex or what's called 'straight run' meaning you get what hatches, both males and females," he said. "If you don't want a lot of crowing from your flock, consider ordering only pullet chicks which are just females. But beware if you order a large lot, statistically you are likely to get a few roosters by mistake. If you are getting Cornish cross birds, there is no need to worry about specifying males or females since they both grow at about the same rate."

If growing chicks is not for you, consider buying started pullets. These are female chicks that have been grown until they are just about ready to lay eggs. The advantage is that you don't have to put up with the loss of chicks during grow-out nor must you pay for the feed and heat required to grow them. Another potential advantage is that you can get pullets that have been fully vaccinated, the animal scientist said. Most poultry vaccines come in large vials meant for large flocks so it's rather expensive to vaccinate a small flock because so much vaccine is wasted. Pullets are often vaccinated for over a dozen different poultry diseases before they are sold.

The Kansas State University Poultry Farm sells pullets each spring. The pullets, which are fully vaccinated, are egg-type breeds known to lay large numbers of brown or white eggs using less feed than standard breeds. Pullets can be reserved for April pickup by contacting the animal science department at poultry@ksu.edu or 785-532-5654.

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